Akinyele Omowale Umoja and “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement ” – A Review

During the spring semester, I am teaching a graduate course on social movements.  Each week, I will post a review of that week’s book (I will also occasionally include a review of a recent documentary that connects to that week’s book)

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Reading Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s brilliant We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013), in the midst of the national celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, was striking to say the least.  Whereas the national narrative, from political speeches to ESPN commercials, imagines the civil right movement beginning and ending with King (and a sanitized and flattened history at that), while seemingly erasing the specter of white supremacist terrorist violence, Dr. Umoja chronicles the tireless organizing and agitation. He focuses on armed resistance, people who in the face of entrenched violence challenged white supremacist terror in Mississippi and beyond.

Dr. Umoja works from an expansive definition of armed resistance, which includes “individual and collective use of force for protection, protest, or other goals of insurgent political action and in defense of human rights… including armed self-defense, retaliatory violence, spontaneous rebellion, guerrilla warfare, armed vigilance/ enforcement and armed struggle” (7).  The willingness or the threat to respond to violence with violence, to protect life, liberty and property “by any means necessary,” was central to the fight for freedom.

Pushing back at linear narratives and those that deny the importance of armed resistance, Dr. Omoja speaks to the dialectics between “unviolent” (Payne) tactics and those more militant strategies.  The gun, like a mass meeting, the willingness to provide secured safe havens for Freedom Riders, like nonviolent training, were all crucial to building community, establishing trust, creating a sense of shared identity, and collectively generating “freedom dreams”; organizing was crucial irrespective of the tactic.  We Will Shoot Back highlights the centrality of organizing and collectivity, pushing back at the individual/non-violent narrative to tell a multi-layered and crucial part of this history.

We Will Shoot Back documents that the history of armed resistance is a narrative of a complex system of roles, organizations, identity formation and action.  Dr. Umoja notes:

Though not as visible as Evers, the Deacons, or the NAACP, the works of the enforcer squads, both that of Shields and that of the NAACP women was essential to the Movement.  The enforcer groups ensured accountability and respect for the decisions of the Natchez Movement.  If the boycott was almost 100 percent effective, recognition has to be given to the work of the enforcer groups.  While this has escaped most accounts of the Mississippi Movement, the participants, in the Movement, particularly those active in Southwest Mississippi, recognize the significance of Rudy Shields and the enforcer groups he organized” (139).

This organization and the importance of armed resistance are documented in a myriad of places, taking a multitude of forms.  The book chronicles the violence endured by the Hazelwood family, who after housing Freedom Riders experienced widespread economic reprisals and terrorist violence.  Refusing to back-down in the face of violence, the ability of Luella Hazelwood or Willie Hazelwood to push forward with their work as activists and organizers cannot be understood outside of history of armed resistance.  Luella spoke about how she did not even fear an arrest by the Belzoni police:

They never would hit nobody, when they pick them up like that. ‘Cause they had a war going on… ‘Cause these folks [Black people] was ready to fight some.  They wasn’t like martin Luther King. Get him on this side and turn the other.  Naw, we didn’t turn no jaws. No Lord.

We Will Shoot Back, thus, documents this history and others, including that of “Da Spirit” which made sure that Blacks were adhering to the boycott in Natchez. “Punishment by ‘Da Spirit’ ranged from public spankings to damage to home or vehicle to seizure of property” (169). It is a story of refusal, of challenging terror and fear, of accountability and justice.

While documenting the level of terror and violence that was part and parcel to Jim Crow and American Apartheid, and the level of violence employed in the name of white supremacy (compare historic understanding of shootings at Kent State to that of shootings at Jackson State College where “police fired hundreds of rounds into Alexander Hall, a form dormitory, killing two and wounding 12 others), We Will Shoot Back “documents the role that armed resistance played in overcoming fear and intimidation and engendering Black political, economic and social liberation” (1-2).

In this regard, one cannot understand the history of the Black Freedom Struggle outside of the simultaneous use of boycotts, other forms of direct action, self-defense, and organizing.  Dr. Umoja makes clear that to understand King’s “Beloved Community” or Lawson’s tools of direct action requires looking at the history of armed resistance throughout the movement.

Armed resistance and nonviolence were not in opposition but worked together.  Dr. Umoja highlights how these tactics and worldviews worked hand-in-hand?  That one cannot understand Freedom Rides outside of a history of armed protection; that we cannot understand voter registration movements outside of the role of the gun in conquering fear in the face of white supremacist terror. “Armed resistance must be included with litigation, mass organizing, nonviolence demonstrations and protests, as well as other forms of insurgent challenge to force federal intervention and a change in white attitudes and behavior toward Black humanity,” writes Dr. Umoja. “Moreover armed resistance contributed to giving activities and communities the confidence to challenge White supremacist terror even when the federal government did not have the capacity or will to protect them.  Without due attention to the role of armed resistance in Mississippi, either the agency of Blacks in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements is denied or an inaccurate account of the Struggle is offered” (p. 258-259).

Reading the book alongside in the context of the King Holiday (and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington) added layers to the book.  Likewise, thinking about the book in relationship to the ongoing debate about guns added another layer.  While some have sought to seize upon this history, and the broader story of armed resistance against white supremacy to justify unfettered access to guns, I am struck by the disconnect between the actual history.  We Will Shoot Back speaks to armed resistance to antiblack racism, to state violence, and to systems of white supremacy.  Within these mainstream discourses, the entrenched antiblack racism, the systemic state violence, the specter of police brutality and #every28hours, is nowhere to be found rendering these historic invocations problematic at best.  Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back gives us lots to think about with the past but the present and future as well.

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